WorkSafeBC warned by anonymous worker about 'excessive sawdust buildup' at Lakeland Mills sawmill in Prince George, agency's report into fatal 2012 explosion reveals; caller said he was a Lakeland employee, feared a repeat of Burns Lake mill disaster

MONTREAL , April 17, 2014 () – Shortly after a bustling sawmill was flattened by fire in Burns Lake, a concerned worker at another operation phoned the province's safety watchdog with fears his workplace would meet a similar fate.

The prediction came true three months later when a gigantic blast shot through the corridors of Lakeland Mills in Prince George, setting it ablaze and toppling walls onto workers eating lunch.

WorkSafeBC included the anonymous call in its investigative report into the fatal April 23, 2012 explosion, along with other details foreshadowing the catastrophe that killed two workers and injured 22 others.

"The caller advised that he was a Lakeland employee and that he had observed excessive sawdust buildup on horizontal surfaces in the mill," said the report, which was released online this week and concluded the tragedy was preventable.

In particular, the caller was concerned about the plant "turning into the next Burns Lake sawmill," the report said.

In January, just two weeks earlier, the community to the west was devastated by the deaths of two workers and injuries to 19 more when Babine Forest Products was levelled by a fiery explosion.

According to its report, WorkSafeBC dispatched an officer to the Prince George sawmill on Feb. 6, 2012, three days after the call. He found there was dust accumulation in various areas of "The caller advised that he was a Lakeland employee and that he had observed excessive sawdust buildup on horizontal surfaces in the mill.

WORKSAFEBC REPORT the mill, though noting airborne dust concentration was below exposure limits. He spoke with mill and workers' representatives about the hazardous wood dust but did not issue any violation orders.

The report was released only after B.C.'s Criminal Justice Branch announced Monday that it would not be laying any charges due to the low likelihood of convictions.

Labour Minister Shirley Bond recently met with the agency's board and appointed an administrator to reform its investigation regime.

Union director Stephen Hunt, with the United Steelworkers, said he believes WorkSafeBC has lost its way.

"The mandate is to prevent injuries, illness and death. And when they can't prevent them and then after they happen ... they can't conduct the proper investigation, there's no reason to put faith in what they do."

A spokesman for WorkSafeBC said the agency wouldn't be commenting while it looks into whether it will impose an administrative penalty against the company.

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